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Vino Italiano

The long-maligned Chianti is making a comeback.

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The subject of Italian wines always puts me back at Pete & Sam's over on Park, inevitably two tables over from a quartet of priests gathered around their veal parmigiano and one of those grass-wrapped bottles of Chianti. Even at 10 years old, I knew — through a friend whose parents had emigrated from Spain — that the stuff was just awful. Although, at the time, I was under the impression that priests could do some wild stuff with wine, so I couldn't be too sure.

This wasn't always the case. Back in 1726, the Grand Duke of Tuscany issued a proclamation restricting the use of the name Chianti and setting a geographical boundary to keep the style's integrity. Two hundred years later, the stuff was widely known for being just awful. The region's growers thought this was being uncharitable as the sangiovese grape just needed to lie for a time. I don't mean three or four years, but something a little more generational.

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In 1967, the Italian government stepped in to regulate the process, but that only codified Chianti's wimpy, acidic badness. So awful was the wine's reputation that it triggered something of a laid-back revolution among Italy's more ambitious wine makers — called the Super Tuscan movement. Basically, they completely ignored government regulations regarding styles and regions. One man heavily credited with inspiring the revival of Italian wines was actually born in Minnesota. The son of Italian immigrants, Robert Mondavi established the first major American post-prohibition winery in 1966, after leaving the family winery due to a fight with his brother. The irony of Mondavi's place in the rebirth of Italian wines is that he himself had his epiphany while touring France — and he wondered if he could achieve Old World quality with modern technology. Conventional wisdom said no.

This, of course, had the predictable effect on an American-born child of immigrants. Not only did he bring respect to New World wines, he inadvertently turned Old World winemaking on its head. Italian winemakers traveled from the old country to his winery to study and work with him. These days Tuscany is as dotted with Mondavi alumni as Napa Valley.

Officially, these "Super Tuscans" were classified as vini da tavola — a sort of nondescript peasant wine. Eventually, reality set in that all the better wines were the ones that ran afoul of regulations, so the government relaxed the rules. With the freedom to do it right, many of these winemakers began making a new and improved Chianti. Which is the long way of saying that Chianti, and Italian wines in general, have in a lot of ways outgrown the reputations held by earlier vintages.

I picked up a Chianti Classico as well as one of those unmistakable grass-wrapped bottles. Being a supporter of recycling, I figured I could always find a U of M student to jam a candle in the kitchy decanter ... or turn it into a bong. The style, then and now, is still primarily the sangiovese grape. Or perhaps overwhelmingly is the better word. Gone is the wimpy-yet-astringent quality of old for a full-frontal assault by a wall of grape jam, with hints of more of the same. Not for me, really — but the Italians design their wine to go with a meal, and that does make a difference.

There is a certain harmony embodied in "what grows together goes together." If you are at Pete & Sam's sitting over a plate of pasta with red sauce or veal parmigiano, that overpowering jamminess gets cut drastically. You don't even need a priest, really. Neither food nor wine seems quite as overpowering as before. Nor is it particularly quiet. The experience is big, loud, boisterous, and fun. Which is as good a description as any of the meals I've had at Pete & Sam's.

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